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Mr. Times and His Knights of the Square Table

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Three points would do it, Mr. Times said. It was rare to get more in the final round, with the best players going head-to-head. Perhaps two and a half might suffice. Anything less would be trouble.

As it turned out, Sunil Weeramantry was right about his K–6 under-1,000 team. They’d fallen back, several points behind. In their place was another familiar threat, Columbia Grammar and Prep. Mott had had good results against Columbia in the city championships, but the mightily endowed Upper West Side private school had an imposing coaching staff including grandmaster Joel Benjamin, one of the highest-rated American players.

Right off, Tom won his game. But Adam lost, almost as quick. Still, that was one point in the bank. But then, in quick succession, Elvis and Albert, both potential point qualifiers, lost.

Time wore on. Most of the games were over now, the hall emptying out, the electricity of 5,000 minds congealed to a desperate endgame thrum. Diego and Dionis were still playing. Hours before, Sunil Weeramantry, right about everything else (Hunter nearly swept the younger groups), predicted it would take nineteen points to take the K–6 under-1,000 division. If Dionis and Diego won, that would be 19.5.

Almost simultaneously, both players were done. Dionis, biting his lip, looked to Mr. Times and extended a level hand. His game was a draw. Diego offered no such signal. Slowly, as evenly as if he were making his way down the Mott Hall corridor on 131st Street, he approached, forever unreadable.

“Draw,” he said, without inflection. That gave Mott Hall two points for the round, which added up to 18.5.

Mr. Times peered up at the blaring lights. “I think . . . we just lost by a half-point.”

Waiting for the results, Mr. Times and Tirado analyzed the games. Diego had saved himself, salvaging a losing position with canny defense. Dionis’s game was a different matter. Behind in both material and position, Dionis had equalized the contest. With one or two astute moves, he would have taken charge. The trouble was, he didn’t see it.

Instantly, Dionis knew what had gone wrong. That innocent-looking kid from the Midwest had hustled him. “I was losing,” Dionis said ruefully. “He kept looking like he was sorry for me. That got me so convinced I was losing, I never realized it when I started winning. But he knew . . .

“I’m sorry, Mr. Times,” Dionis said, chastened. Mr. Times waved off this apology. Sure, Dionis should have seen what was happening. Next time, he will.

The scores were up. Mr. Times had it right: Columbia Grammar and Prep, sixth-grade tuition, $26,350: 19.0 points. Mott Hall, tuition, free: 18.5. It was what Mr. Times feared—a crushing of dreams, a “weaving of the web of despondency.”

Back in their Opryland lair, Mr. Times cheered his wounded bears. Of all his Mott Hall teams, this was the “most significant”—the one he was most proud of. They went to battle with “limited resources,” with only one coach and a decided lack of experience, and held their own against the heavies.

This said, there would be no pillow fight. The pillow fight was for winning, not losing, however closely. Chess had been around for a millennium, but it was still vicious, illusion-killing. If there was one thing Mr. Times taught, you had to work for what you get. Not that he’d have to tell the wounded bears of Mott Hall that. Born into the school of hard knocks, they already knew.

But wounded bears don’t necessarily stay wounded forever. Diego got a giant trophy, almost bigger than himself, for finishing in eleventh place, and finally, he smiled. A nice, toothy smile it was, too. They would be back, the Mott Hall team vowed, dragging out the chess boards again. It was only nine o’clock, time to play four or five games before the lights went out.


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